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SFIFF Opening Night

Glamor and Drama

The 54th San Francisco International Film Festival opened with a bang Thursday night (April 21), transforming the famed Castro Theatre into Hollywood for the occasion.

Lights flashed and digital cameras clicked as black SUVs rolled up to the red carpet, everyone hoping to catch a glimpse of the evening’s special guests Mike Mills and Ewan McGregor, the director and star of the opening night film — the appropriately named Beginners. Mills rolled out in style with wife Miranda July (whose own film The Future is also playing the festival) but McGregor was nowhere to be seen.

Yet, the show must go on, and as the beloved Castro organist David Hegarty played for the incoming audience, excitement was high. Finally, the lights dimmed, the curtains opened and a short introduction to the festival was played to raucous applause (which would continue all evening at every possible moment). Then a spotlight shined on a single podium, and the night began.

Pat McBaine, president of the San Francisco Film Society Board of Directors, issued a warm welcome to the audience and a heartfelt introduction to Executive Director Graham Leggat that was just short of proclaiming him savior of the Society and the Festival. Leggat took the stage to a standing ovation for another welcome and to thank all the filmmakers, staff, and sponsors for helping to put on the event. He also announced the breaking news that the Peter J. Owens acting award will be presented to the esteemed Terence Stamp.

As the crowd grew more giddy, exited, and restless, the podium was handed off to Director of Programming Rachel Rosen as she confirmed the sad news that was already on everyone’s mind: Ewan McGregor was not going to make it. His plane had been delayed out of France and he was stuck in LA. But the bandage was pulled off quickly, and she invited Mike Mills out to introduce his film. However, he took the opportunity to invite an audience member up on stage.

“I’ll be me and you’ll be Ewan, OK?” he told her. He poured his heart out to Ewan in those few moments, calling him the heart and soul of the film, and lamenting the fact that it was supposed to be the night McGregor finally saw the finished film. While a disappointment to everyone in the audience and on stage alike, Mills made light of the situation and introduced his film.

Beginners is a semi-autobiographical film for Mills, his second narrative feature following 2005’s small hit Thumbsucker. Portraying the true coming out of his father at 75 years old, Mills recalled what a wonderful and confusing experience it was for him. After his mother’s death, Mills’ father came clean about his true nature and began an incredible transformation. He fully embraced — and was in turn embraced by — the gay community he had longed to be a part of and he bought a brand new wardrobe to reflect his new lifestyle.

Mills also reminisced that it opened up their own relationship and the two began having deep, intimate conversations that they’d never enjoyed. It was a bittersweet few years for Mills before his father succumbed to cancer, but he also reiterated that while much of the film came from his personal life, the characters were wholly original.

With that, he walked off stage and the curtain opened once more. Even with the anticipation that filled the air and Mills’ incredible introduction, the film surpassed all expectations.

Beginners is littered with vintage big band and jazz numbers that set the mood for a film full of hope, yet characters full of sadness. Three stories are seamlessly woven together to paint a full picture of Oliver’s (Mill’s surrogate played by McGregor) life. The “present” is 2003, with Oliver mourning the recent death of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer in an Oscar-worthy performance) who meets French actress Anna (the stunning Mélanie Laurent) at a costume party he reluctantly attends.

She immediately sees the sadness in his eyes, a sadness she also shares as she travels from lonely hotel to lonely hotel for work. As their story unfolds, Oliver frequently flashbacks to those last few years of his father’s life when he finally came out. He watches as Hal becomes more comfortable with himself, gets a boyfriend, and just enjoys life to the fullest.

This version of his father is contrasted with clips from his childhood where Hal is noticeably absent. Instead it’s his slightly eccentric mother, Georgia (Mary Page Keller in the underdog performance of the film) that he spends his time with, picking up on what he believes to be a loveless marriage. Through these three stories Mills takes us on a journey of the highs and lows of life, displaying all the hopefulness and utter despair it offers. But it’s Hal’s widowed dog, Arthur, that Oliver frequently converses with who steals the show (and the laughs).

Following the screening, Mills and Rosen once more took to the stage for a Q&A, and again lamenting the absence of the film’s star. Mills reiterated that while the film comes from a very personal and autobiographical place, Plummer’s Hal is a very different character than his father was.

He recalled telling the actors to create their own characters and not merely channel the real people they’re based on. Writing the film was a catharsis of sorts for Mills, and he said the turning point was when his real life conversations with his own dog made it onto the page, setting the mood for the rest of the script. Yet, it was only a few minutes into the conversation when a figure, dressed in all black, bounded up the steps to the stage and the audience erupted — Ewan McGregor had made it.

He quickly apologized for his tardiness and told the audience that his flight had been cancelled due to gasoline leaking out of the wing of his plane.

While Mills wished he would finally get to see the finished product, McGregor was just as excited as the audience to be there. They answered questions and reminisced about how shooting the film was “like a dream,” as McGregor put it. Both told stories, mostly at Plummer’s expense, at how Mills attempted to cultivate a father/son relationship between the two. At one of their first meetings, Mills gave McGregor $300 and told him to go help Plummer buy a scarf. Instead Plummer became fascinated by McGregor’s “tight black pants” and proceeded to buy multiple pairs that matched. He ended up spending over a thousand dollars, for which McGregor had to foot the bill.

As the conversation wrapped up, it marked only the beginning of a two week cinematic affair for San Francisco. The audience, Mills and McGregor headed across town to the Terra Gallery to celebrate the film, the night, and to kick off another wonderful year for the San Francisco International Film Festival.